Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai has become an icon for the fight for women's education and, despite being only just about to turn 16 on the 12th July, has been named one of TIME's 100 most influential people 2013. In 2009, age 11, Malala began her blog on the BBC Urdu site about life under the Taliban. The story that unfolded brought worldwide media attention to women's struggle for education, as well as securing Malala as a symbol of courage and hope when the Taliban's assassination attempt to shot Malala as she rode the bus to school failed.
According to UNESCO statistics there are 61 million children around the world out of school, with the target for universal primary education unlikely to be met by 2015. Unfortunately, the majority of these children are girls, subjugated by their gender, who grow to make up two-thirds of the total number of illiterate people worldwide.
There are many challenges being faced by young girls across the world that are preventing them from receiving an education. Much of this in an antiquated view of gender in developing nations, where a high number of girls are submitted to child marriage, and subsequently give birth at an early age, or are subjected to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM). That more than 70 women and girls seek treatment each month in Britain alone following FGM shows the shocking predominance of the practice even among western cultures - despite it being categorised as a violation of human rights and having no medical health benefit.
An estimated 10 million girls under 18 are married each year across the world. This action often removes young women from school and results in a teenage pregnancy that will kill or injure one million girls every year. A lack of education further endangers the lives of both mothers and their children when it comes to maternal healthcare, family planning and sexual health. Access to education has been demonstrated in reducing child mortality by 10 percent and the risk of contracting HIV and AIDS by half.
By working to remove the economic, legal, political and cultural barriers the prevent women from learning there is the opportunity to greatly improve not only the lives of these women, but their families and the communities they live in also. Girls who receive an education are less likely to contract HIV and AIDS and to pass it on to their children, have lower child mortality rates, are better informed on nutrition and health practices and are more likely to send their own children to school.
Even back at the turn of the twentieth century Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey said, "If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a Nation". The longer girls stay in school on average increases their potential wage income, which are then reinvested back into families and communities. With still so many women uneducated in developing countries, the economic potential for developing nations cannot be justifiably ignored.
But women shouldn't just be educated for their economic benefit to the state. The fight for women's education simply comes down to a matter of human rights: the right for women to make their own choices when it comes to their bodies, marriage and family planning, and the right to attend school to receive an education. The question of why we should educate women isn't a gender specific issue, but is a good place to start in a quest for equality and universal primary education.
Maria Sowter is Online Content Editor at Frontier, a non-profit and volunteering NGO that runs 318 conservation, community, and adventure projects in 57 countries across the globe, including the Mozambique Village Project where volunteers can work to improve women's literacy. She can be found blogging on Frontier's Gap Year Blog or posting on the Frontier Official Facebook page.